July 4th, or American Independence Day, marks a time of joyous celebration across the country every year. This year celebrations will be different, and we expect many people will be hosting celebrations at home. While this is great fun for our 2-legged friends, some of our 4-legged ones can find it very stressful.
The stress our pets may experience can be very obvious, with classical signs like destructive behavior, vocalization, and house soiling, but it can also be much more subtle. Pets afraid of the noise generated by fireworks may hide, skip meals, or behave generally “out of sorts.” They may avoid you, or they may do the exact opposite and seek comfort from you – like Great Danes who suddenly think they are lap kittens. While some of these behaviors can be frustrating (and sometimes messy!) to deal with, we always need to remember that these are frightened animals who don’t understand what is happening and meet them with love, support and compassion to help them work through it.
Start working early (days to weeks) before an anxiety-inducing event to mitigate their fears. Training like this works for many events, not just July 4th. While thunderstorms can be pretty hard to predict, other potentially stressful events (children’s birthday parties, family get-togethers or pet parents suddenly returning to work, etc.) are all situations that can be anticipated and prepared for in advance.
One such remedy is a pheromone diffuser. Pheromone diffusers are a way to promote a calming environment before anything unexpected happens. Diffusers plug into wall outlets and release a scent-free pheromone that makes dogs or cats (different products exist for different species) feel serene and calm. Pheromone diffusers take time to saturate a space, so plugging one in a few days before an event is recommended. The same pheromone products can also be purchased in sprays for an instant top-up that can be sprayed on bandannas, clothing or on a pet bed. Some dogs and cats appreciate the comfort of a tight squeeze, just like swaddling a baby. Plenty of commercial products also exist that are designed to comfort pets during times of anxiety like thunderstorms or fireworks. This type of clothing fits snuggly against the animal’s body but they are made of stretchy material so as not to restrict movement. Some even have patches added to be sprayed with pheromones for a double-hit of calm and comfort.
Pets can also be de-sensitized by playing trigger sounds (noises made by other people, tapping, etc.) at a very low volume, barely at the threshold of hearing, and pairing it with positive experiences like play time with a toy or treats. Slowly increase the volume, making sure that they stay calm and confident at every level. Similarly, you can work to mask the sounds by playing music in your home to block out the sounds of fireworks.
Food can also be a very handy tool. Kibble can go into puzzle toys for cats and dogs or be soaked and put in hollow dog toys, while canned food can go in maze feeders for cats and dogs and go in hollow dog toys too. You can even make your own puzzle toys – only your creativity is the limit! Freezing filled hollow toys can make them last for hours for all but the most determined chewers. For many dogs, these foods alone can be enough distraction from the fireworks to keep them happy and occupied, though for some you may need to add a little extra “high reward” foods like peanut butter.
Be wary however, of “herbal” and “natural” supplements and even essential oils. Not everything that is “natural” is beneficial. Supplements are not as well-regulated as either foods or pharmaceuticals, and there have been many instances where containers have not contained the active ingredient at the amount labelled, and/or have contained other substances that were not included on the label, both of which could be potentially harmful for pets. Dogs are not small humans, and cats are not small dogs, so using a human supplement or one made for one species or the other is not always appropriate. Essential oils can also be toxic to dogs, and especially so to cats, so care is required. That being said, there are good supplements and nutraceuticals out there and some exist that may be beneficial for promoting calm and alleviating anxiety. Look for the NASC (National Animal Supplement Council) Quality Seal before purchasing. Products that bear the seal have undergone the NASC’s comprehensive quality audit. A list of member companies can be found here. For example, Halo’s line of supplements all bear the NASC Quality Seal.
Lastly, it is not advisable to leave anxious pets at home alone. An anxious dog or cat is an animal who is not enjoying themselves, and leaving them to survive the ordeal alone is not only unkind but it can be downright dangerous. Dogs and cats frequently go missing during these events and some sustain injuries from leaping through windows or jumping off balconies. Remember, though we know fireworks are well-planned, carefully-designed gorgeous displays exploding in the sky, pets have no understanding of them and experience only fear when it comes to the noise. To that end, show them extra kindness and help them overcome their fears. With dedication, you will have a calm and happy pet who will enjoy the festivities next time around.
Best wishes and tail wags,
Dr. Sarah Dodd